Monday, April 11, 2011

Unsung Heroes

One of my all-time favorite movies, Hope Floats, stars Sandra Bullock as Birdee Pruitt and Gena Rowlands as Birdee’s quirky mother, Ramona Calvert. Both roles, as written and acted, celebrate motherhood, a common condition in that many, many women play the same part. But motherhood, especially single motherhood, done well, demands raw courage and empathy that exceeds every expectation. Birdee and Ramona have both--although Birdee, in particular, must walk a long trail of tears before she can pick up the hero’s crown.

The most heart-wrenching scene stars little Bernice, Birdee’s daughter, played powerfully by Mae Whitman, currently convincing viewers as Amber on NBC’s Parenthood. In the 1998 film, Hope Floats, Bernice struggles to defend her mother from all suitors and herself from total collapse after her narcissistic father allows his new love to humiliate Birdee on national television and abandons his family in order to start anew. He fails to write a note or even console his daughter. Birdee does that, pretending to be the man her daughter needs by constructing a fond farewell and tucking it away where Bernice will surely find it.

The note, written with good intentions, becomes a cruel gesture because Bernice clings to the idea that her mother invented, the idea that her father wants her, misses her, and needs her. Thus, when Daddy finally comes to Texas to mourn his former mother-in-law's passing, Bernice expects to go home with him. This time, Birdee refuses to pretend that her soon-to-be ex-husband is a good man, husband, and father, and she cannot shield Bernice from his self-absorption. She watches stoically as Bernice hurriedly packs and tries to climb into the car. Birdee waits for her daughter’s inevitable return once this man who fathered a child fails to resemble a father. He denies his daughter pleas, even locking the car doors against her.

Little Bernice moves from desperation and disbelief to complete heartbreak. She stands on the sidewalk as the car disappears, sobbing and shrieking “Daddy” and “You want me.” Birdee carries her back into the house that is now their only home.

I cry as Birdee listens to her daughter’s need. I cry for Bernice’s grief, the sorrows of every human who longs to rewrite the truth, spinning it to a different, happier ending. Birdee, overcoming her own grief at the loss of a marriage, her mother, and a future she desired, quells her own tears to dry her daughter’s. She even sustains the lie when Bernice asks why Birdee created the note, signing “Daddy,” not “Mommy.”

Birdee refuses to be seduced by bitterness. She does not say, “Because your daddy is a thoughtless, selfish prick who did not think about how you must be feeling. He failed to provide for us and for our emotional needs. I will never forgive him for failing you--never!” Instead, Birdee allows Bernice to cling to one shred of a dream that once her daddy loved her enough to write a note. One day, she can still dream, perhaps he will write again.

Countless single mothers and fathers are as selfless and brave as the fictional Birdee. Every day they hold their tongues and sigh away their bitter breath. They allow their children to believe because hope, as Emily Dickinson suggested, is fragile. It is a creature with feathers that rises from the depths of despair and carries us higher than our present. Heroic parents let hope live while stitching invisible safety nets to catch their children when they must fall--and they will. We all fall, more than once, yet we wake each morning, hoping for a better day.